Q & A: How Scams Proliferate in the Age of COVID-19

With GW’s IDDP, BuzzFeed journalist Craig Silverman investigated a misleading billion-email sales campaign for overpriced facemasks.

Journalist Craig Silverman at an IDDP event in February. (William Atkins/GW Today)
Journalist Craig Silverman at an IDDP event in February. (William Atkins/GW Today)
April 24, 2020

By Ruth Steinhardt

A recent investigation by BuzzFeed News and the George Washington University Institute of Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP) discovered that a rapacious online affiliate marketing apparatus sent over a billion misleading emails offering disposable facemasks for 10 times their usual market price.

E-commerce entrepreneur Ricardo Jorge Pereira de Sousa Coelho offered the product, SafeMask, at $39.99 for a pack of two. (Comparable respirators normally sell for about 75 cents a unit.) There was also an option to buy a three-year warranty—implying that the mask was reusable for that period of time.

Many of the emails advertising SafeMask were targeted toward subscribers to right-wing newsletters, while others used email lists from survivalist blogs and Horoscope.com. Ricardo de Sousa told BuzzFeed the emails came not from him but from affiliate marketers, third-party marketers who receive commissions for directing traffic to a product.

Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News and the IDDP’s inaugural Knight Fellow, wrote the article for BuzzFeed with IDDP researcher Trevor Davis. GW Today spoke to Mr. Silverman about the investigation, the downfalls of affiliate marketing and the parasitical scam economy arising with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: Have you seen a rise in scams related to COVID-19? What does that look like?

A: This is a unique moment, because you have the attention of basically everyone in the world focused on one thing. We’re all anxious about the virus, and most of us don’t have a lot of information about what it is and how it works. That’s a huge opportunity for scammers and for producers of disinformation to step into that gap.

The level of scamming and malicious activity around this coronavirus is really alarming. You have everything from hackers and malware criminals trying to infect computers—in some cases in hospitals and other critical infrastructure—to people selling dubious “cures” and immunity protection products and things like that. Then you’re also seeing a lot of financial offers, like stocks you need to buy to get rich off of COVID-19. There is just a massive opportunity for scammers that they are taking advantage of.

Q: How did you start looking into SafeMask in particular?

A: It was kind of a coincidence. I had started looking at pandemic profiteers, and at the same time Trevor, who has a background in email marketing, was looking into what kinds of messages about COVID-19 were spreading through email. It just so happened that he found an email promoting SafeMask at the same time that I had done a deep dive trying to figure out who the person behind it was. Once we realized that this mask offer was being sent out to many, many, many people, particularly subscribers to right-wing newsletters, it seemed worth focusing on this one company and this one offer. It was clear the story had some scale to it.

The IDDP has a strong interest in and capacity for investigation, so Trevor and I decided this was a good time to team up on and have IDDP and BuzzFeed News work together.

Q: How did the SafeMask campaign reach the scale that it did?

A: There are people who make their living spamming out products every hour of the day, and the key is that they want to choose products that consumers are going to pay for. The commission offer for SafeMask was listed in a bunch of different affiliate marketing networks. So if you’re a person who makes your living as an affiliate marketer, and you’re looking for new things to make money from, you probably would’ve come across it.

Also key was that [SafeMask distributor] Ricardo De Sousa is a millionaire e-commerce entrepreneur with strong affiliate marketing connections. He has been running an operation built around affiliate marketing for more than a decade. And his stores have a really wide range of products. He’s just trying to market and sell whatever is going to make money at a given time. Right now, in this moment of global concern and global panic, once authorities started encouraging people to wear face coverings, that became a way he could make money.

So once he was able to source these facemasks, he advertised to affiliate marketers in his existing infrastructure, and got the offer out really quickly. Once people started buying SafeMasks, everybody earned money. And once they earned money, other people wanted to earn money too. It’s a snowball.

Q: How did you determine how many SafeMask emails were being sent out and who was sending them?

A: In part with data from eDataSource, an email and newsletter database you can query. We also got a prominent anti-spam researcher, Neil Schwartzman, involved, and he connected us with Validity, a company with a lot of email data. On top of that, Trevor has built some of his own products around tracking email newsletters. Plus once we knew some of the email subject lines and some of the marketing text, we were able to find other places online where it was also spreading.

This investigation wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Trevor and the IDDP. It’s a great example of how academic institutions and news organizations can collaborate to do investigative work.

Q: What do you think made right-wing email chain subscribers and horoscope.com readers—who I imagine have some overlap but are disparate audiences—vulnerable to malicious marketing like this?

A: Conservative email marketing lists are extremely lucrative and have long been used to push dodgy and misleading products. It’s a big machine, and frankly there are a lot of grifters involved in it. The audiences in those lists tend to skew a little older, so it’s natural that health offers appeal to them. And masks fall under that health umbrella.

Plus, De Sousa didn’t just sell masks. He also sold thermometers and sanitary wipes and a UV cleaning device. In some cases, the lists would send out offers for his other products as well. I don’t think it’s an accident that once he started to remove SafeMask from all his sites, he started promoting back posture correctors instead—because a lot of people who were buying SafeMasks were probably older. He has some intelligence about the products he’s choosing and who they’re being targeted to.

With places like Horoscope.com, one of the interesting things we’ve seen around the coronavirus is the intersection of different communities of people. If you look at some of the protests now, in some cases you have folks who are a little new-agey standing up against some of the lockdowns.

But an even simpler explanation for using Horoscope.com’s email list is that it’s large. If a site has quite a large email list and is willing to rent it out for a scheme like this, it might be as simple as the price and the size are right.

Q: What action is being taken against online COVID-19 scammers?

A: The FBI, the Department of Justice and global law enforcement organizations are doing everything they can to warn people about this stuff and also to investigate cases. A lot of times FBI doesn’t really care about spam; it’s not something they actively look at. But when it comes to things related to the coronavirus, there’s a desire on the part of the FBI and other law enforcement to shut down anyone profiteering off it.

The problem is that the amount of scams taking place is overwhelming for any one agency or even a group of agencies. The reality is that people are going to get scammed, people are going to lose their money and people with no ethics or morals are going to get rich.

Q: Do you see any possibility that this could cause a cultural shift in law enforcement to take this kind of cyber-fraud seriously?

A: Unfortunately I think the likely prediction is that they focus on this for now, and then as the virus recedes over time and the scammers move on to other things so too might law enforcement. On the other hand, people who perhaps have been scamming folks for a very long time in different ways are going to try to make money off the coronavirus and get caught in this crackdown. So it might cause some longtime scammers to get caught and prosecuted, and that of course would be a good thing.

But whether it’s in six months or a year or two years’ time, people will move on, scammers will move on and law enforcement will move on, too.

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